If you’re looking for the quintessential Côte d’Azur beach experience, you can test the deep blue Mediterranean waters in splendidly contrasting landscapes that stretch from Monaco to Cannes. There’s no need to rough it—some of the finest beaches provide cushy lounge chairs and umbrellas (about €10-€20 a day), along with showers, massages, cool swimwear boutiques and shaded restaurants—a day at the beach Riviera-style often includes a long leisurely lunch of fresh grilled fish and salad, washed down with chilled local wine.
On the other hand, there’s also no need for the oversized designer sunglasses, silver gladiator sandals, Vilebrequin floral swim trunks or amply stuffed wallet, either. You can also throw your sun potions and a towel in a backpack, pick up a pan bagnat—essentially, a salade niçoise on a big round roll—at any sandwich stand, travel by train for a few euros, then walk, or hike, to any number of lovely beaches scattered all along the coast.
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin: Family friendly and affordable
Avoid the summer traffic snarls and hop on a local train headed toward Ventimiglia and the Italian border, then hop off at the still-sleepy, lush peninsula of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, between Menton and Monaco, only a 20-minute ride from Nice. From the Cabbé Roquebrune station, the Plage du Buse is just a short walk along the Le Corbusier path—the architect’s famed beach hut is right nearby, along with designer Eileen Gray’s restored villa E-1027. Down a flight of stone stairs you’ll find one of the prettiest and least-crowded spots on the coast, even in high season. No Hermès-towel-toting Monégasques here, just crystalline waters and a vast, peaceful pebble-verging-on-sand beach. Do bring your own sun umbrella, but if you haven’t packed a picnic, there are cold drinks and sandwiches available at a little wooden snack shack in the far western corner of the beach. Just behind La Buse, make sure to take a peek through the gates of the sumptuous landmark villa, Casa del Mare, once owned by Italian movie magnate Dino De Laurentiis.
Hang-glider aficionados may prefer to continue west on the Corbusier path to the Plage du Golfe Bleu, another lovely stretch of beach, which has become the unofficial landing headquarters for the deltaplane (hang-glider) crowd, hovering gracefully above.
Cap d’Ail: Casual Glam
A ten-minute walk down the hill from the Basse Corniche road, plus a long flight of fig-tree-shaded stone stairs (check out the lovely mosaics on the steps), the Plage Mala is the Côte d’Azur’s little Caribbean curve of pebbly sand. Surrounded by cliffs, the clear turquoise shallows, dreamy view and isolated location attract a mix of Monaco’s jeunesse dorée (who arrive by boat), Italian day-trippers and families with young children. Inaugurated in 1933, and named after dancer Mala Kchessinska, who liked to stroll there with her lover, Tsar Nicholas II, this beach is still one of the most breathtaking unspoiled inlets on the coast. The beach is divided into sections: there are two private paying beaches (La Réserve de la Mala and Eden Plage), and both establishments offer the comfort of lounge chairs and a bar restaurant with standard beach fare—salads, grilled fish or pizza—served to the steady throbbing beat of electro lounge music. You can also laze on your striped mattress and never move a muscle, since the well-tanned attendants, called plagistes, will attend to your every heart’s desire, from chilled rosé to a hearty meal of steack-frites, ordered from the menu on the little plastic table beside you. Book your mattress in advance in high season. The budget-minded traipse down the stairs laden with mats and umbrellas and make a beeline for the two areas of free “public” beach. Mala is the perfect spot for evening picnics or cocktails, if you’re looking for a friendly party atmosphere after sundown.
Saint Jean Cap-Ferrat: Postcard Perfect
At the tip of the exclusive pine-shaded Saint Jean peninsula, La Paloma Beach, on the route de Saint Hospice, is a small, pebbly beach with clear jade and turquoise water and a sweeping view of the coast and the blue-grey Maritime Alps. One section is public, and deliciously shady in the afternoon; the other is a private beach, packed comme des sardines with a golden-bronze sun-worshipping crowd. The beach restaurant, La Paloma, specializes in fresh seafood and is well worth the splurge for a romantic candlelit meal at the water’s edge. The lunch menu offers pizza, salads and sandwiches on an informal terrace. Best bet: a morning swim, when the water is a smooth silky mirror. Then take a walk around the nearby customs officer’s path (le sentier des douaniers), one of the loveliest strolls on the Riviera.
The glittery curve of the Bay of Angels is brighter than ever since the Hi Beach arrived in Nice in the summer of 2008. Ablaze with a flashy violet, pistachio green, indigo, turquoise and raspberry decor, this unique private “urban” beach is divided into color-coded zones, with different models of lounge chairs: Hi-Play, a family section, with cool mini-tents for kids; Hi-Energy, which includes a lounge with wooden mini-huts for drinks or snacking; and Hi-Relax, a plant-lined section with giant hammocks and a massage area in the sunken mini-spa tent.
Dreamed up by French designer Matali Crasset, creator of Nice’s hip ecological-meets-conceptual Hi Hotel, the organic gourmet restaurant is also part of the fun. Come sunset, Niçois hipsters arrive for cocktails with fresh juices and music played by excellent DJs. The imaginative menu, conceived by Argentine Michelin-star chef, Mauro Colagreco, who heads the Restaurant Mirazur in Menton, includes cold gazpacho, sea bass and fennel carpaccio, fish or veggie burgers with homemade fries, clam saffron linguini, and desserts like fresh fruit salad and exotic tiramisu. Les galets, the famed smooth stones of Nice’s pebble beach, are murder on your feet, so don’t forget to bring flip-flops or other hardy soles.
Cap d’Antibes: Classic and Stylish
No one would recognize La Garoupe as the deserted beach of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, where Dick Diver (modeled after 1920s artist Gerald Murphy) raked pebbles and seaweed from the sand. Today serious sun worshippers fight for the striped lounge chairs on the private beaches, but the good news is that the sea has retained the same improbable shades of turquoise and emerald, and it’s a great place to dine with your toes in the sand. The Restaurant César at the Plage Keller features tasty Provençal fare in addition to the ubiquitous salads and grilled fish, served at the water’s edge.
The Hôtel Imperial Garoupe’s snazzy contemporary-style beach restaurant, Le Pavillon, serves a Mediterranean-inspired buffet lunch or grilled meat and fish with a wide choice of side dishes and was recently awarded one Michelin star.
Théoule-sur-Mer: Worth the Walk
Only a 20-minute drive from Cannes, check out this lovely, wild part of the Mediterranean coast, surrounded by the jagged red rocks of the Esterel, with white sandy beaches and burnished blue water that turns almost violet against the cliffs at sunset. To hike to Pic de l’Aiguille, one of the prettiest beaches, park on the coastal road (you’ll see the blue snack shack just past the village) and make your way down the bluff—you won’t be alone, it’s a local favorite. The less adventurous may want to sunbathe on the more accessible private beach of the Tiara Miramar Beach Hôtel, past Théoule village, towards St Raphaël. The hotel’s patio restaurant, Le Bistrot de la Plage Red Roc, features a good selection of barbecued meats, oven-baked pizzas, Tahitian-style raw fish, jumbo shrimp, and asparagus with summer truffles. There’s also a small thalassotherapy spa with a daily rate for a post-swim or after-lunch treat.
COTE D’AZUR BEACHES NOTEBOOK
Cap d’Ail La Réserve de la Mala, 04.93.78.21.56; Eden Plage, 04.93.78.17.06. website 
Saint Jean Cap-Ferrat La Paloma Beach, 04.93.01.64.71. website 
Nice Hi Beach, 47 Promenade des Anglais, 04.97.14.00.83. website 
Théoule-sur-Mer Tiara Miramar Beach Hôtel, 47 ave de Miramar, 04.93.75.05.05. website 
Originally published in the July/August 2009 issue of France Today; updated in June 2012